Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face

27 Aug

Bodhnath Stupa – Kathmandu (2007)

Bodhnath Stupa rises like a giant white bubble over the flat rooftops that dominate the Kathmandu skyline. I was told Bodhnath was about 6km away from Thamel and I set out to walk there. That walk turned out to be an odyssey through slope after slope, trash heaps, crossing streams, dodging traffic, and side-stepping little Nepali dogs. When I got to the temple complex, it was surrounded by a village and curio shops run by Tibetans. There were several Tibetan monasteries spread around the area and I saw many Tibetan monks with their maroon-colored robes going about their daily activities. I followed a few of them into their monastery. It sat on a hill above Bodhnath. I could hear trumpets, the low bass tones of other horns, the tinny chimes of cymbals, and the blasts of a gong. I walked up ladder to the second floor of the monastery towards where the music was coming from and I peered through the doorway. I saw the monks playing all these instruments themselves. The music was interspersed with chanting and prayer. The pageantry, musicianship, and vocalization were heavenly and were in such contrast to the austerity of other Buddhist monasteries. When the monks stopped their service, I went back outside and looked out over the railing. Bodhnath was below me.  What struck me was the precise geometry of Bodhnath’s design. The central bubbled-shaped Stupa is so dominant that one could easily overlook the plinth it sits upon. This is a terraced platform which is in the form of a “Mandala” featuring concentric blasts of whitewashed stones jutting at precise mirroring angles. There are 4 stairways leading up each level of the rising platforms to the Stupa. This was the first Mandala that I had ever seen and to appreciate its design you had to observe it from above — either from the monastery I was standing at or from one of the rooftop restaurants of the buildings encircling the Stupa. Mandala is a Sanskrit word for circle, but the circle is formed through a geometric diagram using a square with 4 gated entrances as the base. There is a circle contained in the center of this square and the square itself is contained with an outer circle.  Many different explanations exist for how the Mandala is invoked as part of the ritual and spiritual layering of Buddhist practice — especially in the Tibetan tradition which creates Mandalas in many different media, forms, and structures. In fact, one of the primary differences I have noticed between the Tibetan Mahayana Buddhist tradition and the Theraveda Buddhist school is the Tibetan Mahayana’s emphasis on color, art, and geometric splendor to convey the Buddhist path. All of these things are captured within the Mandala which can take the form of a fresco, a 3-dimensional structure, or sandpainting.  The Stupa of Bodhnath stands in the center of the Mandala. It is not certain whether this Stupa contains a relic of the Buddha which was the original purpose behind the erection of these shrines. Some believe that a piece of bone of the Buddha may be contained within Bodhnath which was built around 600 AD. The  primary base of the Stupa consists of hundreds of prayer wheels that are spun by the faithful as they complete the “kora” or circuit around Bodhnath. Each of the wheels contain the following mantra written in Sanskrit on the outside: “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Instead of having to orally chant these words, one can invoke them through spinning the wheels which releases the mantra into the universe. This mantra contains 6 syllables and each word has a duality of meaning – a yin and yang.  The current (14th) Dalai Lama has explained this mantra like this: “…the six syllables, om mani padme hum, mean that in dependence on the practice of a path which is an indivisible union of method and wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech, and mind into the pure exalted body, speech, and mind of a Buddha.” When I read the mantra and the Dalai Lama’s explanation, it becomes apparent to me that the mantra acts like a “greatest hits of the Dharma”. This mantra sums up the essence of the Buddha’s journey – renunciation, the middle path, spiritual practice, and attainment of enlightenment – but personalizes it to the individual who chants it.  This idea that anyone can become a Buddha is central to the Mahayana tradition and the mantra encapsulates this concept within a mere 6 syllables.

The Eyes of Bodhnath

The most striking aspect of Bodhnath are the eyes. There are a pair of eyes painted on each of the 4 sides of the main Stupa. The depiction of eyes are unique to Tibetan Buddhist temples. None of the Pagodas, Dagobas, or Stupas that I have seen anywhere else in the world have had any human characteristics depicted on their exteriors. The core reason for the depiction of eyes comes from its connection to Mahayana Buddhist practice. The ultimate goal of the Mahayana tradition is to not focus on the attainment of enlightenment only for the self, but to devote oneself to the enlightenment of all. Any person who is moved by such great compassion and who lives his life in the pursuit of attaining enlightenment or Buddhahood for others is a bodhisattva. So, the depiction of the eyes on Bodhnath (or Swayambhunath – see below) is to broadcast the omnipresence of the Buddha’s teachings so that anyone can receive them. These all-seeing, never blinking eyes symbolize the universality of the Dharma which is to be shared with all people. There are no ears depicted because the Buddha did not want to hear the praise and chants of his followers, and instead of  a nose, there is a squiggle placed below and in the middle of the eyes. This is the Sanskrit representation of the number one, and, as its placement suggests, signifies the middle path.  Above each pair of eyes are 2 thick black eyebrows and in between them sits a third eye. This conveys the meditative practice Buddhism encourages in order to help purify the mind, body, and speech within oneself.

Swayambhunath Stupa

Swayambhunath sits atop a hill overlooking Kathmandu. The eastern stairway that leads up to the temple is steep and is said to contain exactly 365 steps. There are so many macaques (monkeys) hopping around the wall and the steps as you get close to the temple that Swayambhunath is actually referred to as the Monkey Temple. There is a legend that a bodhisattva who lived on the hill grew his hair so long that he had a lice infestation. When he cast out the lice, they became the monkeys which now inhabit the temple complex. The sun was close to setting when I made it to the top of the stairs, and from there I noticed that I had the Stupa to myself.  Most of the Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims who come to Swayambhunath do so in the morning. There is a monastery on the hilltop, but I was sure the monks must have been inside having a sunset service. So, it was just me and the monkeys. Although curious, the monkeys were not the brazen kind which try to pry things from your hands or stick their hands in your pockets scrounging for food.  I did the kora around the Stupa and saw that it was flanked by 2 tall Sikhara-style temples which had been built by a Hindu King many years after the Stupa had been constructed.  These 2 flanking temples gave “Swayam-bo” (another nickname) a much different look and feel than Bodhnath.  Instead of a Mandala design, which corral visitors into 4 escalating gateways in order to circumambulate each level and gravitate towards the center, Swayam-bo is just an open circle with 2 Sikhara temples off to its left and right. The 2 temples are separate and disconnected from the Stupa. Yet, despite this separation, Swayam-bo’s design physically links the 2 great religions that came out of India, Hinduism and Buddhism, and it is for this reason that Swayam-bo occupies an especially revered status in the minds of its pilgrims.

The Eyes of Swayambhunath

Swayam-bo’s eyes are also different.  While the eyes of Bodhnath are wide-eyed, blue, and somewhat ambivalent in their gaze, the eyes of Swayam-bo are narrowed, pale, and seem a bit cynical.  It is as if Bodhnath serves as the bigger beacon and broadly sends an “all are welcome” signal, whereas, Swayam-bo is more reserved and reticent. Swayam-bo may have a more scenic entrance than Bodhnath, but this entrance also requires the more arduous journey. It appears that one has to earn her keep in Swayam-bo’s gaze and this gaze also includes a third eye that is much more pronounced than the slight representation on Bodhnath.  The spiritual discipline and inward contemplation Swayam-bo radiates upon onlookers and pilgrims is more intense than the relaxed feel of Bodhnath. The prayer wheels around the base of Swayambhunath are more numerous, but smaller than those of Bodhnath. Each wheel carries with it the same 6-syllable mantra. I remember that when my eyes first met the eyes of Swayam-bo, I thought there was something familiar about the shape and feeling of those eyes. They penetrated through me and I could almost visualize the face that may have been behind those eyes. It was not one of the many depictions of the face of the Buddha that I had seen before. It was something or someone else. I was frustrated that despite my intense efforts at peeling through the layers of my memory, I could not place those eyes with a face from my past. I then realized it was a riddle.  The eyes, nose, and other elements of Swayam-bo may have individual symbolic meanings, but taken as a whole, there is a coordinated, veiled message there. That was what triggered the feeling of familiarity in me — there was a latent meaning that was literally staring me in the face. Bodhnath and Swayam-bo each convey the riddle differently due to their visual variations, but the understanding one can achieve after figuring out the riddle will be the same.  That is the power of these 2 Stupas and why they still stir such devotion. Their eyes beguile and beckon — they are at once fixed stares and reflective mirrors just as we are at once capable of great compassion and abject impurity.  They encourage and mind the faithful and that begets practice, method, and wisdom. Om Mani Padme Hum.

One Response to “Bodhnath & Swayambhunath – Eyes Without a Face”

  1. Irina Vasilieva October 26, 2012 at 11:16 pm #

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